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One team’s short-lived dance in tournament reminds why college basketball is worth fighting for

Brett Blizzard was a leader for the Seahawks team that nearly upset Maryland in the 2003 NCAA tournament. University of North Carolina Wilmington photo

Brian Hendrickson

Each spring, my favorite March Madness memory replays in vivid detail as I watch the buzzer beaters punctuating the excitement of the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

It was the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament. I was a youngish newspaper reporter covering the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the Colonial Athletic Association champs who had defending national champion Maryland on the ropes. Aaron Coombs, a 40 percent free-throw shooter, had just sunk a pair from the line, putting the Seahawks up 73-72 with five seconds left. It was around midnight, and the Wilmington Star-News was holding the press for my story, which was nearly finished. I just needed the clock to run out.

So obviously, you can guess what came next: Maryland senior Drew Nicholas took the inbounds pass, raced up the court and took an off-balance, drifting 3-pointer that barely seemed to touch the net as it slipped through for the game winner.

I deleted three-quarters of my story and rewrote about 500 words in eight minutes to make my deadline — my own one shining moment.

But my moment is not the reason I remember that team and that season so fondly.

Especially this year, as the tournament played out with so many questions — about the FBI investigation, about the recommendations of the Commission on College Basketball — I kept thinking about that team and that moment and why it represents to me everything I love about college basketball. Because while that shot may have sent those players home, they turned out to be anything but losers.

Their two-time conference Player of the Year, Brett Blizzard, still is playing professionally overseas, where his charmed life plays out in Facebook photos of his wife and four kids smiling in exotic Italian locales. Their first-team all-conference forward, Craig Callahan, played in Europe for a dozen years after getting his business degree. He retired from basketball to work in finance.

Joel Justus, a reserve guard on that team, became dean of students and boys basketball coach at a North Carolina private high school before returning to college basketball — as a coach on John Calipari’s Kentucky staff. Two others are finance managers. Another worked with at-risk youth before returning to college basketball as an assistant coach. Yet another is an account rep for a software developer.

I know this because many of them have reached out to me over the years, apparently still feeling connected by moments like that awful, amazing shot that sent them home losers on that night, only to emerge as winners — darn near every one of them a success story — in the life that followed.

I think about that team almost every March. But this March, the thought was clouded with concern. This season made clear that change is coming — that it needs to come. Within days of this column coming out, the Commission on College Basketball will make its recommendations. And in the months ahead, some difficult discussions will take place. Changes no doubt will come. I have no idea what they will be.

I just hope there is real solution in those discussions. Hearing the stories of that UNCW team after that fateful shot 15 years ago has shown me everything that is beautiful about college basketball.

I look forward to making more memories just like that one.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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